What Is Religion?

The term “religion” refers to a broad taxonomy of sets of social practices. Depending on one’s perspective, it might include all of these or any number of other things: a worldview, belief, culture, music and art, morality, ritual or sacrifice, initiation, service, family, history, and an approach to certain writings, persons, and places. It might even include such things as mythology and fantasy, art, or a sense of transcendence.

Emile Durkheim, a prominent nineteenth-century sociologist, argued that all religions have many things in common, including the fact that they are all concerned with sacred or spiritual matters. His work continues to be a significant influence on sociological thinking about religion today.

In addition to the truth, Scripture, and behavior that are often discussed as elements of religion, some scholars argue that a religious system must also include a code of morality or ethics. They further point out that most religions are organized hierarchies, and that this carries the additional function of maintaining or strengthening social order.

Other scholars have argued that substantive definitions of religion are too broad because they focus on beliefs in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders, while failing to consider faith traditions like Buddhism, Jainism (see Jaina Philosophy and Jainism), and Daoism, which are nontheistic. They have urged that, instead, religion be understood as a set of functionally related social formations or practices. Among these are community, cohesion, order, stability, and an anti-radicalizing force. In this sense, all societies practice some sort of religion.

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